My alarm started blaring at 4:00 am: I couldn’t get up. I eventually dragged my lifeless body to the shower and cleaned up. The cold water woke me up. I grabbed my bagged lunch from the check in desk and my dad and I went to the car.
I was dropped off at the convention center around 5 o’clock, and I once again aquired the precious front row bus seat. It was the same group from King Ranch: Me, Baxter and Tucker, Ezra and Theo and their mom Joanna, and Ander and Paul.
By 5:30 the charter bus was on the road due west. We all got some more sleep until we stopped at a gas station. I was tempted by the cases of Red Bull and Monster in the fridge. We returned to the bus and continued.
As the sun rose, the bus turned left and onto a small gravel road. The road was lined with small homes, and at the end was the parking lot of a small Catholic Church. We got out and walked down towards the river as a group, and our guides advised us to put our phones on “airplane mode” to avoid picking up service from Mexican carriers.
I heard a Black Phoebe calling, which was later found on top of some machinery along the road.
An Archilochus hummingbird vocalized in the vegetation but was not seen: possibly a Black-chinned Hummingbird. White-winged Doves and Green Jays flocked around, and Olive Sparrows called from the brush.
We reached the river bank and watched the great numbers of Green Jays flying back and forth over the border. Altamira Orioles sang their beautiful songs in the background, and an Audubon’s Oriole was found perched on top of a tree. I was amazed by the striking yellow body and black head. The bird flew off and across the river, perching on a willow, and began to sing, filling the atmosphere with the strangely beautiful sounds of weeping.
After a few minutes, we were split into three groups: one visited the feeding station, one looked for White-collared Seedeaters, and one (us) scanned the riverfront for flyby Muscovy Ducks and Red-billed Pigeons.
The groups dispersed and we began to scan the river, seeing many Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants flying up and down the river, and a flock of Mexican Mallards was found distant upriver. Some Greater White-fronted Geese flew overhead, along with a flock of American White-Pelicans.
Suddenly, a sound which strongly resembled a machine gun was heard distantly: a Ringed Kingfisher. After several seconds, the massive bird came into view, speeding downriver as it continued to call. A second kingfisher appeared, and the two circled around at great heights overhead. We marveled at their great size: they dwarfed Belted Kingfishers and shamed Green.
We waited along the river for something interesting to show up.
The male and female kingfishers perched on a snag in Mexico.
The group that looked for the seedeaters returned with good news, they had seen the elusive birds in the canes!
Anxious to look for this rare species, we quietly walked up and onto a trail that continued through thick Mesquite and Retama plants. The birders had seen the seedeaters about 20 minutes ago, but did not bother to tell us sooner.
We looked quietly and thoroughly, hoping to find the tiny, secretive birds clinging to the canes that lined the river bank. After the nearby cane patches were searched, we began to scour the ones on the islands and in Mexico.
After searching for a while, we made our own path to reach some canes further upriver. We pished out some Lincoln’s Sparrows and yellowthroats, but no seedeater.
A Gray Hawk was found perched on a large tree far upriver, and the bird’s scream was heard faintly in the distance, muffled by the calls of nearby kiskadees, jays, and woodpeckers.
We sat patiently.
Rustling in the canes. Binoculars up! “Just a yellowthroat.”
“tsip!” “Sounds like an Olive”
A passerine flew by. “Too much tail for a seedeater.”
This repeated for the next hour until we completely lost hope.
On our way back to the road, we stopped for a flock of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Orange-crowned Warblers with a pretty Verdin mixed in.
We made a brief stop at the feeding station.
We departed with 33 species on our Mexico lifelist, and headed up to Chapeño, finding a Greater Roadrunner running along the road (quite fitting).
We arrived and were given sodas as a consolation for the groups that missed the seedeaters. The birds were quiet and only a few unidentifiable meadowlarks and a White-tailed Hawk were seen.
After thirty minutes of sitting around, we left the newly dubbed “Crapeño” (curtesy of the younger birders), and started the journey back to Harlingen. We were told earlier that we were going to be trying for some desert species, but apparently we didn’t have time.
To pass the time on the road, the young birders on either side of the bus had a competition for bus-listing in Starr County. My side on the left clearly won with 19 species, because the others began desperately stringing Lesser Goldfinches and White-winged Doves in an attempt to win.
Back in the range of cell service, we received word that Gabriel and Raymond had pinned down two Tamaulipas Crows at the famous Brownsville Dump!
This species hadn’t been seen in the U.S. for almost a decade, but throughout late fall, a couple of reports were scattered throughout South Texas, even on a pelagic in the Gulf.
Once we finally pulled into the convention center parking lot, we impatiently ran out of the bus. We found Gabriel and Raymond manning their booths at the trade show, who were giddy with excitement of their impressive find. They told us that the most recent report of the crows was from 20 minutes ago.
I called my dad to see if he was on his way; he arrived shortly, but Baxter and Tucker’s mom was running late. We had no time to lose, so we all squeezed into my dad’s car and Joanna’s car, and I punched in the coordinates for the dump as quickly as possible.
The excitement built up as we approached the dump, until we finally arrived and turned on to a road bustling with bulldozers and dump trucks. A metal gate marked the entrance of the once famous birding hotspot, which had been completely forgotten for the past decade.
We parked at the visitor center. We exited the cars into the rain, finding a massive flock of Laughing Gulls circling above a mountain of trash in the distance. Several Chihuahuan Ravens soared on the thermals as well. I signed the guest book, finding a multitude of famous birders’ names throughout the pages.
Back in the car, we began ascending a steep incline, until we reached a plateau and pulled our rental cars into a muddy, trash-smothered spot off the side of the road.
The birders dispersed, and several of us ran up a large hill of trash, where several birders were looking through a scope. The 360 degree view of the endless trash was shocking (it is probably the highest elevation in all of a south Texas), but I was quickly distracted when I was pulled in front of a scope, where I laid my eyes on a glossy, long-tailed corvid perched on a snag of firewood: a Tamaulipas Crow. I had (and still have) no words to describe the utter shock and excitement I experienced at that moment. I looked at the second briefly before letting the others see the bird.
We ran back down the trash and gull-laden hill towards a crowd of birders who stood about thirty feet of the crows.
I took a look in a beautiful Leica scope, and was astounded by the beautiful, glossy, iridescent-blue sheen of the crow. The bird made an effort to vocalize by holding its wings out and hunching it’s back, and it gave several low, nasally “cawww” calls.
Although the deafening calls of thousands of Laughing Gulls and Great-tailed Grackles surrounded us, and bulldozers were constantly driving by, all I payed attention to was the crow.
We were all quite satisfied to be present the day the Tamaulipas Crows returned to the iconic Brownsville Dump, surrounded by some of the biggest names in birding.
I texted Oscar, hoping he would arrive soon, but he was running late. Shortly, the crows were flushed by a truck and temporarily lost. (Don’t worry, he got the bird!)
I would’ve liked to stay for another couple hours, but the rain continued to pour, and we were loosing daylight: I wanted to look for Aplomado Falcons!
We returned to the car, where I found my dad talking on the phone. He never saw the crow! I tried to convince him to come see, but he was uninterested. I will never understand non-birders.
We started the drive down the hill, stopping for the ravens.
And a caracara.
Baxter’s mom was running late to the dump, so the others stayed behind while my car (including Tucker and Paul) drove to the Zapata Memorial Boat Ramp in Laguna Atascosa. Oscar had found a Wilson’s Plover, so we were hoping to find the little shorebird before looking for falcons.
We arrived and parked, grabbing our muddy shoes and my scope from the trunk (need to keep that upholstery clean).
We scanned the Laughing Gull flock, but had no luck in finding a Franklin’s, so I crossed the highway and stood on the shoulder, scanning the shorebird flocks. Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers dominated the flats. It felt like home until a Long-billed Curlew swooped in and landed in a nearby pond.
The others arrived shortly, so we left the boat ramp ploverless and set the route to the Aplomado Falcon Viewing Area for our second try for the species.
We parked and I walked bare-footed with my scope, doing a thorough scan of the barren landscape, a familiar task from yesterday. We found nothing, and returned to the cars.
We decided it would never worth checking Old Port Isabel Road, so we hit the road. My poor navigation skills resulted in us doing several circles back and forth down the highway, because the wall separating traffic was quite troublesome: we couldn’t see across and had to drive several miles before making a U-turn.
At last, we turned onto a small gravel road and continued along it with windows down. Gunshots fired in the distance. We scanned the wires and fences for falcons. Suddenly, the other car ahead came to a halt. Baxter exited the car and pointed to the left. In the distance I saw two birds perched on a fencepost. A raise of the binoculars confirmed Aplomado Falcon! We ran out of the car and got scopes on the birds.
The sun set, and marked the end of another incredible day. Dinner this time was at Chili’s, where I treated myself to a Cowboy Burger with jalapeño peppers, onion rings, and barbecue sauce. A good day in South Texas.